The unconventional 2016 presidential race

Despite all its hand-wringing surprises, the contest has shown how democracy breeds innovation in ideas and people.  

AP Photo
A voter leaves after casting a ballot in Indiana's May 3 presidential primary in Noblesville, Ind.

A year ago, many conventional pundits watching America’s presidential race said that the “establishment insiders,” Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton, would handily win their party’s nomination. And that big money would decide primary contests. And that Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders would not last long. And that pollsters would be accurate in predicting voter behavior.

Oops. In fact, much about the 2016 presidential campaign has challenged conventional wisdom.

For one, the “outsider” candidates have done well. Mr. Trump, a businessman with little political experience, is now the GOP’s presumptive nominee. And Mr. Sanders, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist who is an independent, has won many of the state Democratic contests, although he doesn’t have enough delegates to beat Mrs. Clinton. Both Trump and Sanders have tapped into a voter anger that few polls predicted. And they have pushed many apathetic citizens to get out and vote.

Most voters do not seem to mind the advanced age of Trump, Sanders, and Clinton. For Clinton, being a woman hasn’t always given her an advantage despite the historic prospect of becoming the first female president. In addition, the traditional advantage of tapping big money from special interests has been challenged by Sanders’s grass-roots fundraising and Trump’s ability to tap his own wealth.

The 2016 campaign has also led to big advances in digital outreach and analytics of voter data. And new types of social media have given voters and politicians even greater power to influence politics. Who could have predicted four years ago that former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger would use Snapchat to endorse his preferred candidate (John Kasich)?

The wonder of representative democracy is how much it breeds innovation, not only for government but at large. It is the best vehicle to discern the thinking of voters. It brings out a diversity of people as potential leaders. Its constructive conflict helps elevate ideas into the public consciousness where they can then be sifted and either employed or discarded.

With its freedoms and equality, democracy is also the best crucible for innovation in technology and social life. When people can speak freely and choose their leaders openly, they feel safer to explore, to question, and to aspire. The function of free speech, wrote Justice Louis Brandeis in 1927, is to free people “from the bondage of irrational fears.”

An election is a civil competition between ideas and people that can help break a society’s old habits and discern new directions. Campaigns may at times become too diverse or disordering for some, or even uncivil in rhetoric. But even that can inspire citizens to bring critical thought and inspiration to politics. The result could be a burst of surprises that turn conventional wisdom on its head. Just look at the 2016 contest.

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